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At 9:06 pm ET on Wednesday night, the Democratic Party’s Obama era officially ended.
That was the moment Sen. Cory Booker looked over at Joe Biden, one of his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, and said, “Mr. Vice President, you can’t have it both ways. You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.” He was talking about immigration. Biden and by extension, Obama, were taking fire on the debate stage for deporting more immigrants in the first two years of their administration than President Trump had in his first two years.
As he did throughout the second night of last week’s CNN Democratic Presidential debates, Biden defended Obama, citing his support for immigration reform. Paul Begala was among those taken aback by the debaters’ repeated criticisms of the 44th President: “I was stunned at how disrespected he was tonight. On immigration, criminal justice and trade, Democrats denigrated the record of the man who saved the American economy, rescued the auto industry, signed the Paris Climate Accord and placed two impressive female justices on the Supreme Court. It was sad and stupid.”
John Avlon asked, “When did Barack Obama become a Republican?” He noted, “if the policies of Barack Obama – a person who is still America’s most admired political leader – are being castigated as Republican talking points, that’s a sign of how unmoored our political conversation has become from reality.” And for Democrats, Avlon contended, that risks helping re-elect Donald Trump.
Wait a second, wrote Paul Waldman, in the Washington Post. He called Obama an “excellent president,” the best of “my lifetime,” but still said Democrats should welcome the criticism. No president is perfect, “and if Democrats want to have a serious discussion about what they want to do with the presidency the next time they have it, they not only can discuss the shortcomings of Obama’s tenure, they have to.”
They might also consider taking a page from Obama, Errol Louis wrote: “Whatever happened to ‘Yes we can’?” Instead, on the first night of the week’s debates, centrist Democrats John Delaney, John Hickenlooper and Steve Bullock “launched a full-out attack on Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for promoting sweeping measures like Medicare for All and decriminalizing undocumented border crossings.” It reminded Louis of Obama’s pushback against naysayers in his victory speech after the South Carolina primary in 2008: “’Don’t tell me we can’t change. Yes, we can,’ Obama said. ‘Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can seize our future…’”
Republicans welcomed the divisions. Scott Jennings recalled, “Democrats savaged Republicans in the 2018 midterms for trying to repeal Obamacare. And now two of their leading candidates for president – and several others – are arguing about how to do the same thing. My head is spinning!”
It was all about Biden
Of course, Obama’s legacy was collateral damage in the attacks on Biden, the frontrunner in early polling. To dislodge him, the others went straight at his strategy of closely allying himself with the Obama years.
Biden brought a more spirited performance this time, after a weak turn in the first round of debates “Joe Biden got the memo,” wrote Tara Setmayer. “This time he came prepared for the onslaught of attacks and wasn’t afraid to hit back when necessary. Biden still needs to work on more crisp, simplified defenses of his record on immigration and criminal justice, but overall his performance should alleviate concerns about his ability to handle the campaign.” She faulted the other debaters for spending “more time sniping at each other over wonky policy differences than making their cases to the American people as to why they would make a better president than Donald Trump. This is not a winning strategy in the long run.”
Julian Zelizer wrote, “At the heart of Tuesday’s debate was the contest between moderates who focused on their objections to others’ bold proposals and progressives who focused on the problems that we face as a nation… Senator Warren took the most advantage of the on-stage dynamics by offering hard-hitting comments about President Trump and presenting a series of specific policy solutions in stark opposition to the GOP agenda.”
The moderate vs. progressive conflict was clear. “The struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party has now been joined for all to see,” wrote David Gergen.
Sen. Kamala Harris, who dominated the first round of debates, found herself on the defensive this time, particularly at the hands of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who critiqued Harris’ record as California Attorney General. “It was always going to be hard for her to replicate the success of her first debate moment against Biden,” wrote SE Cupp of Harris. “But she was overshadowed – not by the front runner, Biden – but by the tier under her.”
Biden, Warren, Harris, and virtually all the candidates who took part in the debates shared their personal stories in a series of op-eds for CNN. See them here.
Other takes on the debates:
David Love: Trump’s rage at Baltimore shows what’s at stake
David Axelrod: Elizabeth Warren is running a brilliant campaign
Bill McGowan and Juliana Silva: Cory Booker’s secret weapon
Kate Maltby: The battle for America’s online soul
Todd Graham: Elizabeth Warren gets an A+
Gilroy and El Paso
The shooting victims last Sunday were attending the final day of the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California. The victims Saturday were shopping in El Paso, Texas. They had this in common: they were cut down by lone gunmen, young men whose motives are being investigated. (Less than 14 hours after the El Paso mass shooting, a third one occurred in Dayton, Ohio.) Can anything stop the awful plague of gun violence?
Mark Rosenberg, a former official of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, thinks answers can be found: “Scientific research has produced solutions to some of the most life-threatening problems of our time.” He noted that auto safety research has saved 600,000 lives over the past 50 years. “This approach has the power to get us out of the deadly morass of gun violence by finding solutions that both protect gun rights and reduce gun violence. “
One key problem: “The hardest and most urgent question is ‘what works?’ It is also the question we know the least about. The truth is that nobody knows whether banning the sale of semi-automatic rifles will prevent mass shootings. And nobody knows whether arming all teachers will save or take more lives.”
‘Jane the Virgin’ takes a bow
“Jane the Virgin,” touted as “the best show on television,” ended its run Wednesday, and Johnita Due marked the occasion with a tribute: “The show has touched me as no other, not only for taking me on a familiar journey through my childhood and adulthood, but for showing Hollywood and this country that we can celebrate Latino culture as a part of who we are.”
Like the title character, Due “grew up watching soap operas” and still is a fan of “The Bold and the Beautiful.” Her husband and children don’t quite get it, she wrote, but to her “watching a soap is less about the storylines and more about family and cultural tradition. So it wasn’t hard for me to lose myself in the outlandish, hilarious, romantic, heartwarming, dramatic, magic realism of ‘Jane the Virgin.’”
Save the black rhinos
For 50 million years, black rhinos have roamed the earth, but their days may be numbered, wrote supermodel Behati Prinsloo Levine. “Driven by a demand in China and Vietnam, where it is thought to be a cure for a variety of ailments and a status symbol, rhino horn sells for up to $100,000 per kilo on the black market - more than the price of platinum.” The poachers in rural Africa get little of that bounty, she wrote: “Here, impoverished individuals are being exploited, convinced to trade the life of a rhino for a few hundred dollars and the possibility of years in jail.”
Thankfully, conservationists are working flat out to save the species: They “rotate their patrols, spending 21 days a month walking across this harsh, rugged terrain, tracking rhinos, sleeping under the stars and positively identifying each animal in their patrol area.”
Ever since he took office more than two years ago, Donald Trump has effectively been at war with his own intelligence agencies, and it has played out in part as a continuing series of conflicts with Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence. Last week, Trump announced that Coats was on the way out. Peter Bergen wrote, “Coats’ departure was utterly predictable because he performed his job, which was to tell the truth. Unfortunately, his boss didn’t like those truths.”
They clashed on Iran, ISIS, North Korea and Russia, Bergen wrote. “So naturally Trump is nominating Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex) as his candidate to replace Coats – with the principal qualification for the job appearing to be his unquestioning fealty to Trump.”
Harry Litman, writing in the Washington Post, urged the Senate to block the Ratcliffe nomination, saying he had a “well-earned reputation as a political partisan and a toady to the president.” He noted “charges of Ratcliffe dramatically exaggerating his own experience prosecuting terrorism cases.”
And then on Friday, Trump dumped Ratcliffe, saying the congressman was being “treated very unfairly” by the media. The President was said to be surprised by doubts in the Senate over the Ratcliffe pick.
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A mighty book
When David Shaerf was a teenager, he was forced to read “Moby-Dick” in a literature course, and he hated it. Then he picked up a copy of the book as an adult, and was immediately drawn in: “the opening paragraph of the book spoke to me in ways it could not have possibly in years prior. The narrator, in a fit of ennui, tells of his desire to head to sea as a remedy to his depression. I get this. What better medication for boredom or anxiety could there be than to run off to an adventure on the romantic high seas?”
The author Herman Melville, whose 200th birthday was Thursday, had worked on a whaleship as a young man, and he turned that experience into a story that works on many levels. Melville died in 1891, long before the book was widely recognized as a classic.
Shaerf, who’s now read Moby-Dick five times, wound up making a documentary about the book and its fans: “It was only upon returning to the book that I came to understand that Melville wasn’t simply writing about whales, he was writing about the human condition (and whales): ‘All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.’”
Happy birthday Herman!